Tuesday 26 September 2017

Dermot Gilleece: The R&A have a right to choose

Padraig Harrington has said it is wrong to force courses to discard 'men-only' membership
Padraig Harrington has said it is wrong to force courses to discard 'men-only' membership

Dermot Gilleece

When Nissan decided to stage the 2003 Irish Open at Portmarnock, Joanna McMinn, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, expressed outrage that the event should go to a club which practised "blatant discrimination."

The extent to which seriously questionable indictments are inflicted on the golfing world these days, was highlighted during the R and A’s traditional eve-of-British Open press conference this week.

The term “questionable” is used advisedly, given the inflammatory language which seems to be reserved for this particular issue. For instance, while colleagues insisted on describing the all-male status of Muirfield’s membership as discriminatory, one broadcaster went so far as to ask R and A chief executive, Peter Dawson, to distinguish between “men only and whites only.” Quite correctly, Dawson dismissed this as a “ridiculous” proposition.

The R and A chief had earlier explained: “Single-sex clubs are in a very small minority in the UK. Half of them are women only, half of them are men only. They’re perfectly legal. In our view they don’t do anyone any harm, and we think the right to freedom of association is important.”

And he went on to estimate that roughly £30m had been contributed from R and A coffers to women’s golf over the last 10 years. Yet politicians in these parts who enacted the legislation permitting Muirfield to exist have been falling over themselves in shamlessly exploiting the issue.

When the 2003 Irish Open had come and gone, Gerard O’Toole, the executive chairman of Nissan Ireland, remained unrepentent about his decision. "I happen to play in golf clubs where women have full membership and it is not an issue which even crosses my mind,” he said. “My attitude to Portmarnock is that we were guests of the club. We were sponsoring a tournament, not a golf club. And if you're invited to someone's house, you don't start questioning the guest-list or the seating arrangements. We were guests and we behaved as guests."

As it happens, Portmarnock’s status has since been endorsed by the Supreme Court.

There is obvious merit in campaigning journalism where the objective is to right a grave wrong. But certain scribes seem to delight in pursuing a populist agenda, perhaps out of egotism or a misguided belief in the public’s need for change.

I happened to acquire personal knowledge of such campaigning back in the 1980s when equality for women in golf in Ireland became a national issue. During that period, I was to be appalled at the exaggerations and plain disinformation engaged in by pressure groups who quietly admitted off the record that this was the standard strategy to grab attention.   

Nobody was more anxious to champion the cause of equality for women in Irish golf at that time than Des Rea O’Kelly, honorary secretary of the GUI. In lengthy chats he and I had on the issue, we agreed that the key lay in seperationg the playing of the game from the administering of golf-club facilities. So it was that he and I devised what became known as the “Three-tier Constitution”, recognising a women’s club, a men’s club and the actual facility of course and clubhouse, all under the same roof. This went on to become the foundation stone for historic change over the following decade.

Meanwhile, the government stepped up the pressure by announcing, through Failte Ireland, that no club which was deemed to discriminate against women, would qualify for an EU development grant.  Many clubs embraced change while for intractable rebels, there was an imposed solution. This was effected by the Equal Status Bill (1999) which covered all areas of discrimination, including fairness in any payments a club might consider appropriate when a woman changed from associate to full-membership.

By way of illustrating that discrimination in golf wasn’t always one-sided, I remember writing about Wirral Ladies' GC, which was launched in 1894 to accommodate the wives and other female relatives of Royal Liverpool GC.

Initially a women-only establishment, its membership was later extended to take in men as associates. So it remained until 1952 when men became full members. Crucially, however, they paid £1 less than women in their annual subscription and continued to be denied voting rights until the law was forced to take a hand in 1997.

That was when the Licensing Officer for the Wirral District felt obliged to threaten non-renewal of the club’s liquor licence unless the situation was rectified. Which it was, though women maintained overall control of the club.

Against this background, you will not be surprised if I find myself happily commending the R and A’s decision to stage The Open at Muirfield.  Nor will I feel any disfomfiture when they return to the other men-only establishments of Royal St George’s and Royal Troon. They are simply expressing their right to choose and I can’t imagine any reasonable women golfers being damaged or inconvenienced as a consequence.

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